Integrating Sustainability into the Student Experience

By Heather Spalding
Sustainability Leadership and Outreach Coordinator
Portland State University

Summer is a time of reflection for sustainability professionals in higher education as we wrap up the previous year and look forward to the future. How have we impacted our campuses? Did our initiatives create both broad and deep strides toward resilience? The summer season lets planted seeds thrive if the right supporting conditions have been cultivated. In the same way, colleges and universities are substrates that can yield innovation, creativity, and solutions. Year’s end allows us to see seeds sprout and mature, perhaps viewing transformation and growth as students and graduates strengthen their roots in communities around the world.

This June, I had an opportunity to mark the end of the academic year by volunteering at my university’s commencement ceremony. In just over 12 hours, we graduated the largest class in our state’s history. It was a time to reflect on my own past campus experiences as both a student and staff member. During the celebration, I glanced back from the stage to the line of graduates walking toward the podium and was humbled. Each name spoken from the microphone wove a thread into a tapestry of individuals from across Earth, representing even more diversity than I had realized our campus held. The impact of higher education is both local and global, permeating boundaries and creating waves of change that spread throughout time and space.

Commencement is a transition from one stage of life to another, ripe with possibility and opportunity. This culminating experience signifies the completion of a degree that, hopefully, prepares graduates to engage wisely in both our local communities and our global village. Positive news about the generation entering our workforce is often buried beneath negative headlines that fuel fears of competition and scarcity. The reality is, transformation toward a more just and sustainable society is building. Surveys show that 80 percent of U.S. college graduates would like to make a positive impact on the environment, and 92 percent would like to work for an environmentally friendly company. With 53 percent of Fortune 500 companies now publishing sustainability or corporate social responsibility reports, and 80 percent of the U.S. population acknowledging our need to decrease consumption, a paradigm of deeper awareness is gaining momentum. The critical challenge now lies in creating systems that make these aspirations possible. Graduates need to be prepared to design social and economic systems that allow humans to thrive within the ecological limits of our planet.

From water shortages to climate change, population growth to the health of bees, biocultural diversity to globalization, everything feels inextricably interdependent and connected. Higher education is a great leverage point for addressing the complex issues that affect us all. Many students recognize the multifaceted challenges that face us, and they can become overwhelmed when classes seem abstract and disconnected from day-to-day life and there is no clear action component to the learning process. A recent article discusses a student fast at the University of California, Santa Barbara with the slogan “There’s too much to lose, don’t make me choose!” Resorting to fasting shows the seriousness with which these students take environmental, social and economic problems.

Traditional lectures and online classes have an important role to play in education, but they are not sufficient to prepare future leaders to address the complexities of our global challenges. Higher education is in the midst of a great reflection about the processes by which we accomplish our mission. I’ve been inspired by the Living Laboratory concept that envisions campuses “where problem-based teaching, research, and applied work combine to develop actionable solutions that make that place more sustainable.” The college experience can provide a stable learning environment that allows our students to see the impacts of their actions, understand the complexity of systems, appreciate multiple perspectives, and practice their leadership skills.

Resources such as the Center for EcoLiteracy’s Five Ecoliterate Practices and the American College Personnel Association’s Sustainability Change Agent Abilities offer holistic sets of competencies for students. Sustainability leadership skills will become more relevant as an ethic of care for environmental, social, and economic systems is further integrated into the leadership of communities, business, nonprofits and government. These skills can be embedded as learning outcomes throughout the student experience to create broad impacts.

Many universities work toward greener practices during their commencement planning or participate in the national [Graduation Sustainability Pledge] to include values of environmental and social integrity into the graduation experience. These initiatives can cultivate valuable learning experiences that may not be measured. Through what other gateways do our students pass during their education, and how can we create a navigable pathway that supports development of the whole student? Whether exploring their bioregions through outdoor programs, calculating the ecosystem services of campus trees, participating in community-based learning projects, or holding leadership positions like EcoReps, hands-on experiences make classroom learning applicable.

My university recently launched a photo contest called “Oregon is our Classroom.” Students, staff and faculty sent pictures of their self-defined “classrooms,” and University Communications framed the photos with an outline of our state’s shape. When scrolling through the entries, you won’t see any students watching a professor lecture. Each submission shows a unique learning environment and groups of people working together. Engineers without Borders sent a photo of students addressing flooding at a rural primary school in Nicaragua. Participants in Alternative Spring Break submitted photos from a service trip to organic small farms. My student employees sent photos from the planting of an oak savanna on campus.

These are examples of the rich experiences that help us to better understand who we are in the world. Inspiring, authentic images and stories allow us to serve as role models for each other and create a ripple effect of possibility. Participating in a rich student life community supports development of the whole individual and is a key component of higher education’s value. Can we connect student life with campus-wide learning outcomes and touch every student? We can lower walls within institutions to become learning organizations that thrive through dynamic processes of transdisciplinary action and reflection. When we recognize our interdependence, we see that everyone has a niche to fill and unique qualities to offer. From admissions to commencement, sustainability can become an integral part of the student experience and create adaptive solutions that move toward environmental, social, and economic resilience.